Establishing a festival

Friday, July 20, 2012

Establishing a local festival is an extremely challenging task. Anybody can throw a party one time, but organizing a team that can sustain an annual event requires patience, stamina and a way to rejuvenate enthusiasm.

Longstanding festivals make it look easy. It's anything but easy.

Okemah (Oh-KEE-muh), Okla. hosts the Woody Guthrie Music Festival. Okemah is a town of about 3,000 people located 45 minutes from Tulsa, close enough to access an audience but still rural, without a guarantee that anyone would come.

According to one of the festival board members, getting the festival started at all was challenging. Woody Guthrie was not well loved in his home town. A socialist who felt more kinship with laborers and illegal aliens than with Chamber of Commerce types, Guthrie was remembered by many in town who were glad to see him go.

The original organizers mounted a festival for eight years, the board member said. They laugh about the 1994 concert that the popular Red Dirt Rangers played in the park to only a couple dozen people. One of the downtown merchants listed all the reasons why he felt Guthrie was not a hero in his store window.

In time, the people who avidly disliked Guthrie became fewer and fewer. The festival board reorganized in 1998 and contracted with a top notch sound company that delivered a stage and acoustics that would satisfy any professional performer. The show went on, and continues to this day at a very high caliber with nationally known artists performing.

If they can do it in Okemah, which is really rural, it can be done almost anywhere. Of course, you have to have the right draw, and enough underwriting to cover costs. According to Deana McCloud, president of the Woody Guthrie Coalition, this year's Woodyfest attracted between 5,000 and 6,000 people with 110 artists performing. That's an impressive undertaking for any community.

Organizers for Monett's Strawberry Festival and this weekend's Purdy Festival should not be discouraged about small beginnings. Festivals need time to grow, and hearty staff to keep them growing. The winning formula may not be the original plan, but constant and persistent fine tuning can lead to a winning package that pays dividends for years to come.